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With the hot summer sun in Australia, it may come as no surprise that melanoma skin cancer is the most common cancer to affect young people between the age of 15 and 39 years old. Tragically, if melanoma cancer is not caught in its early stages, it can metastasise (spread) to the lymph nodes and then rapidly to distant parts of the body where it becomes harder to treat.

With your support, there is hope on the horizon. In the last ten years new treatments have developed which harness a patient’s own immune system (known as immunotherapy) to fight metastatic melanoma, and these are already helping patients live longer and in less pain.

The first immunotherapy treatment to come on the market is called Ipilimumab, which has been trialled at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital (TQEH) for the last few years with some very successful results, a fact physician in training Tharani Perera recently discovered through a review of this treatment.

“My role was simply auditing what results clinicians at TQEH were getting with this drug. This treatment has been shown in clinical trials to improve survival rates for metastatic melanoma so it’s important that what we are doing in our work as doctors reflects that,” Tharani explained.

“Metastatic melanoma has been a particularly tough cancer to treat before immunotherapy, with outcomes from traditional chemotherapy being only modest. This new way of tackling cancers using immunotherapy drugs is actually getting considerable results – which is exciting.”

Immunotherapy treatment has been available to patients with metastatic melanoma for the last 10 years allowing patients to live up to 10 or 12 months longer than they would have if treated with only chemotherapy.

“The fact this treatment can increase survival for even 10 to 12 months is huge.”

Since the discovery of Ipilimumab, melanoma has become a rapidly growing research area with more immune-based treatments emerging and having positive impacts on patients today. An exciting development, Tharani is confident research will continue improving care and treatment for her own patients in the future.

“Melanoma has become a fast moving research area. Now there are newer drugs superseding Ipilimumab in the market. These treatments still harness the immune system to fight the cancer but they are targeting different things, and are actually currently showing better results with less side effects,” she said.

With patients responding differently to various treatments, this opens up avenues for personalised medicine, an area researchers are now exploring in a range of cancers.

“Cancer treatment has changed so much. It’s exciting for us as future physicians as there are more treatments available to patients now” Tharani said.

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